‘No merit’ to Higgins claim centenary service could be inappropriately political

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said there was no merit to the complaints of Irish president Michael D Higgins about the “political” nature of today’s centenary service.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 7:02 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd October 2021, 10:24 am

The DUP leader was accompanied by DUP First Minister Paul Givan to the hour-long worship session in Armagh, and afterwards took questions from the press.

Presbyterian clerk Rev Trevor Gribben sounded a similar note, saying that there was no “triumphalism” about the service, which was attended by the SDLP and Catholic worshippers, but boycotted by Sinn Fein.

Mr Higgins had given different reasons about why he would not go to the service.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

He initially indicated it was because he had taken umbrage at being referred to in the invitation as the “President of the Republic of Ireland” (instead of just Ireland) – however, this turned out to be wrong.

He had also said that the name of the service (which, in full, is: ‘A Service of Reflection and Hope, to mark the Centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland’) was “not a neutral statement politically”.

He had said: “When you are president, and you are responsible for the long vision you have to take all of the consequences into account and all of the interpretations, and I did that.

“[I am] not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott or any other events in Northern Ireland... I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise discretion as to what I think is appropriate.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey was asked by the News Letter if he had detected any merit to Michael D Higgins’ claims that attending the service could be seen as a “political” act.

“I really don’t think there was merit to it.

“Perhaps the president will have the opportunity to actually see down and watch this service, and perhaps see what it was truly about.

“It’s not about politics. It’s not about one side gloating, or in any way seeking to be overbearing on the other.

“But actually [it is about] all of us coming together to reflect on the journey that we have been on, difficult, painful that it has been at times but also a journey in which I hope we have learned a lot of things.”

He was also asked if he was confident that there would still be a Northern Ireland in another 100 years.

“There is hope,” he said. “I’m hopeful the Northern Ireland we’re going to build for the future is going to be enduring.”

The basis for this has to be “respect and tolerance” for one another, he said. “That will be the mark of the next century, and that makes me hopeful for the future.”

On the question of whether the president’s concerns had merit, Rev Gribben said: “Ultimately the people who’ll judge that are the people of these islands who’ve been watching on live TV, BBC and RTE.

“It wasn’t about triumphalism, it wasn’t about political messages. It was genuinely about working together...

“I don’t think there was anything anybody should have been worried about in that service.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie meanwhile said he felt it had been a “wonderfully uplifting service”.

“Unfortunately not everybody could be there, and that’s always a shame, but that’s the task for the next number of years, to try and get people to feel comfortable all being together and understanding what our differences are from the past,” he said.

“I think in the weeks and months to come people will look back and think what was the controversy all about…

“Because what I saw was a real mix of people who classed themselves as Irish or British and many from other corners of the world.

“I thought it was a fantastic service of celebration in the term of celebrating our differences.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long termed the service a “moment of reconciliation and an opportunity for us to come together”.

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